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Working in America: The Other Second Shift — Learning While Working, Part One

Working in America text written over an image of a business group working round a large table

In today’s work economy, much has changed in the way people approach finding a rewarding career, along with the education that fuels it. Whether your goal is to be a financial analyst, a scientist or a skilled tradesperson, the question remains: How do you balance making a living with acquiring the skills and credentials needed to advance your career?

In this first of a two-part article in the Working in America series, we explore what’s changed in the how, when and why people across a range of disciplines decide to get the training they need to increase their value in the jobs marketplace.

The brave new world of work and school

America has changed significantly when it comes to balancing work and education. In previous generations, people often chose to complete their education before entering the workforce. Some would expand their credentials and skills by taking evening courses, while others obtained advanced certifications sponsored by their employers as their career developed.

In a world where people can expect to work for five or ten companies and in multiple industries over the course of their careers, deciding when, how and where to increase your market value by adding skills and credentials has become much more complex.

The complexity of choice

One of the biggest challenges is deciding the timing and the type of education needed to maximize your value in the job market. In some industries, real-world experience can be more highly valued than formal degrees or certifications. In other industries, where a bachelor’s degree used to be the ticket to entry, now an advanced degree has become the new normal.

Then there’s the question of when to take the time for education. Depending on your industry, career goals and economic security, should you frontload your career with formal education or get into the workplace and add credentials as you can afford them from both a time and money standpoint?

The new economy of work

We spoke with Aerotek market research analysts Eddie Beaver and Kerry Heffner to get their take on what’s going on.

“There’s a new reality in the workplace, essentially a new economy of work,” says Beaver.

Age diverse group sitting in a classroom writing in notebooks

“In many industries, a retirement wave is taking a lot of experience out of the workplace. The growing shortage of skilled workers and institutional knowledge puts a lot of pressure on the people left behind. What this means for businesses is a constant need for skilled, quality workers. What this means for people is the opportunity for work. Our role in this new jobs economy is all about redeployment. We’re constantly matching the availability of the most appropriately skilled contractor to each job opportunity.”

Learning – the thread of a connected career

In today’s economy we know that training, education, certification and skills building are all vastly important. It doesn’t just happen at the beginning of our careers. In many ways, it’s the thread that connects a career, constantly adding value to the worker. What’s challenging for many of us is how to create and sustain that learning for its maximum benefit to our careers and value in job market.

Kerry Heffner explains, “As the economy improves and the job market tightens for some industries, an associate’s degree is actually becoming a popular alternative to a bachelor’s degree. We see colleges accommodating less traditional approaches to the when and where of a formal education by offering blended courses, degree and accreditation courses mixed with both in-person and online learning.”

“An example is a lab technician planning their career in medicine or in science. They come into their first job at a more entry level, and gather on-the-job learning experience, while they pursue their undergrad or even their master’s degree at the same time.”

“Yet in some industries like engineering, where once a bachelor’s degree would qualify you for many positions, increasingly a master’s degree is wanted by some employers. We’re seeing young professionals realize early on that the job and position they’ve always wanted can be theirs — as long as they take the time to get their master’s degree first. There really isn’t any one-size-fits-all model for combining experience and education while progressing a career.”

The critical equation

“Sometimes a formal education can be the least important part of the critical equation,” says Beaver. “It’s the equation that calculates the value of a worker to herself and to the employer. We often place ambitious but relatively unschooled workers in more entry level spots, and then, through on-the-job learning, they acquire the learning and skills that qualify them for increasingly higher levels of formal certification. That’s the winning combo in many industries. And for many jobs, what’s valued most by the employer is your work experience. Many are looking for people ready to get their hands dirty with on-the-job experience.”

“In some business categories, it’s a very tight jobs market, so we have people without high school diplomas getting hired on the merit of their real-world experiences. Our recruiters work with social workers helping people get placed into jobs where companies are hiring ambitious workers without diplomas. Many of these people then start building up their on-the-job skillsets while getting their GED or high school diploma.”

Workforce as competitive advantage

One aspect that remains consistent in America is how smart companies create and maintain a competitive advantage by cultivating a high quality workforce. Beaver explains, “Companies still need skilled people to learn and to grow within the organization. It creates a compelling competitive advantage.”

Trends show that in some industries, successful companies are realizing the value of incentivizing and encouraging workers to acquire skills and certifications while they work. Industries range from skilled trades to pharmaceutical, covering workers as diverse as welders and clinical research associates. The logic is clear — a highly certified workforce gives companies measurable competitive advantage. But what’s equally clear to workers in almost every industry is that the more they learn, the more valuable they become in the jobs market.

Learning by doing

When Belia Wong was a little girl she had a dream. “I wanted to be a pediatrician from the earliest age. A lot of my family is in the medical field. As I grew older and learned more, I saw how nurses work behind the scenes as the eyes and ears of the doctors. What I really wanted was to be close to the patients — in-touch with the patients.”

 Aerotek contact employee Belia Wong

Belia Wong’s story is an inspiration to us, as well as a testament to the power of learning by doing. People like Belia are driven by an almost insatiable curiosity about their chosen field. As Belia’s story reveals, this curiosity can fuel an opportunistic talent for building skills through a constant mix of practical and formal education.

We mentioned to Belia that her blend of varied work experience and formal education seems a prime example of someone who believes the best way to learn is to be a sponge in their everyday work environment. “Yes, that’s me. I knew I wanted some background and learnings, even before registering for nursing school. I’m a pretty fast learner, and I am an intently curious learner. I learn first by watching and then by doing. I’ve learned that the more you know how to do other people’s jobs, the better you do your own. I became very good at picking up as many different types of usable skills and information and learning as I could.”

Skills building on the job

Belia spent some time studying at the University of San Francisco (USF) knocking out some prerequisites she turned to a field she’d worked in since high school — healthcare. After the brief stint at USF, “When I first entered the world of skilled nursing everyone asked me to help. My first chance was working as a receptionist in the office. Then they asked me to help organizing medical records. Then I got a job as an office manager. With these early practical skills acquired I decided to dedicate more time to completing my nursing degree.”

In 2013, Belia entered the nursing program at the American College of Nursing, and kept on working. “I saw an opportunity to become a social services worker, and I decide to take that on. It allowed me to go to school in the evening, where I am now, getting my licensed vocational nurse, or LVN, certification.“

Skills-building, as practiced by people like Belia, is based upon a canny foresight for understanding which types of practical knowledge will contribute most to her budding career. Belia explains, “I’m constantly picking up skills, which are coming in very handy for what I do now — and I’m pretty certain for what I might be doing in the future. Like in my current job in social services. Once I get my LVN I’m ready to apply for my RN. With the patient care experience and a couple of prerequisites completed, everything should add up to me being accepted. Then I go to nursing school for two years and when I complete that, I’m aiming to become an ER nurse. This has been my dream for a while.”

Front-loading learning

When we look at the diverse pathways to building a successful career around learning, we realize there are almost as many different approaches as there are people. Anthony Gupta’s parents told him to stay focused on school and that they would help him with his higher education.

With this support in hand, Anthony’s approach was to get all his formal education completed up-front in his career. “I made up my mind freshman year of undergrad — get a bachelor’s degree, head directly into an MBA program and get a job while going full-time at business school,” Anthony recounts.

“I got my BS in business administration with a concentration in finance at Drexel University. As soon as I graduated I moved into the accelerated MBA program at Drexel. My dad has been a key partner in helping me execute my plan and when it came to getting a job, he found Aerotek online and suggested I reach out. I did, and told my recruiter that I needed something nearby, since I was going to school. They found me a job that fit great within a few weeks.”

Full and full

Whether front-loading your formal education, returning to school later in life or threading college throughout your career, working full-time while going to school full-time is a lot to take on.

“We call it ‘full and full’”, says Anthony, “and there are days when I am groaning. I’m in an accelerated quarterly program which means I take three classes per quarter, two nights a week in person and a third class online. All this while still working full-time in my job as a cash applications analyst makes for a pretty hectic life. I’ll be talking to friends and they’re heading out to party and I’ll be heading to the library. But I also know that I’m making the sacrifice now, and that in a little more than a year, they’ll be heading back to school and I’ll have my MBA in hand and starting my career for real.”

Blended can be better

The higher education industry understands the challenges faced by students as they try to juggle school and work. As Kerry Heffner noted, more and more colleges and universities are offering blended degree programs like Anthony’s MBA program at Drexel.

Blended programs offer students a wider degree of flexibility, since some of the courses are offered in a purely online format. Such programs are becoming increasingly popular, especially for self-starting students finding it difficult to carve out time for in-person classes or when distance between work, school and home is an obstacle.

Anthony told us, “It’s a good mix for me because of the flexibility. But believe it or not, an online course can be pretty stressful because it’s on you to balance your time. It’s all about self-control, since you’re juggling work and in-person classes while also managing to get that PowerPoint done, do research, submit your work. You can’t miss deadlines and you can’t slack off. But you really do get out of it what you put in.”

Be sure to read part two of this special two-part article in the Working in America series next week, where we explore the new jobs market realities of balancing learning with work, and the role of professional networks and employers in the mix. In the meantime, check out our current local job opportunities or create or modify your free Aerotek career account today.